Sarah Ingham: The Government’s Covid communications campaign made lab rats of us all

4 Feb

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

“Millions of people took seriously a communications campaign, apparently designed by behavioural psychologists, to bully, to shame and to terrify them into compliance with minute restrictions …”

In the Commons’ debate on the Sue Gray report, Steve Baker’s intervention was one of the few which did not prompt the Prime Minister to remind us that he is currently under investigation by the Metropolitan Police.

The MP for Wycombe took the PM to task over Government messaging in connection with Covid. Not only had people meticulously followed the rules (unlike a certain First Lord of the Treasury and his wife, perhaps?), but their mental health had suffered.

Baker’s question on Monday highlights the growing unease that the messaging was unethical and its results malign. It also called into the question the role of behaviour psychology, the science of what drives our decision-making. It seems the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will be looking into the use of “nudge” tactics in connection with the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Recent reports on Covid’s collateral damage highlight an increased risk of measles because the take-up of MMR jabs is the lowest in a decade, as well as an £8.7 billion loss thanks to defective and unsuitable PPE. Such missteps in connection with public policy – inadvertent or not – are quantifiable. Assessments about burning through taxpayers’ hard-earned money in a pandemic-induced public-spending spree are far easier than judging the impact of Covid comms and the tactics to ensure the acceptance of public health measures.

It must be remembered that back in early 2020, the Government was flying blind, needing to do something, anything, to protect us from a possible plague. In addition, behavioural science – which informed some of the messaging – is meant to tap into our subconscious minds. But even raising the subject of possible subliminal coercion risks comparisons with incel-prone nutters, breathless with conspiracy theories about how the Pfizer/Moderna/AZ clot shot will turn us all into lizards.

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), better known as the Nudge Unit, was set up by David Cameron in the early days of the Coalition to improve the workings of government by injecting an understanding of human behaviour into policy. Inside the Nudge Unit (2015) by its director David Halpern chronicles how small changes – such as reminders from HMRC that ‘most people pay their tax on time’ – can produce big results, at almost no financial cost.

Nudging has been used across government departments for the past decade. It has saved the taxpayer millions by, for example, reducing missed medical appointments. As Prof Halpern states, nudges work on an unconscious, automatic level: “Behaviourally-based interventions can operate below the conscious radar of busy citizens.”

According to Gray, “The UK Government put in place far-reaching restrictions on citizens that had direct and material impact on their lives, livelihood and liberties.” The overwhelming majority of us complied with the lockdowns. How far the Government and its agencies coerced us into this compliance, not least by deliberate fearmongering, is now coming onto the conscious radar of Britain’s busy citizens.

SPI-B, the behavioural science sub-group of SAGE, set out Options for Increasing Social Distancing Measures in a paper on March 22 2020. As it stated, “The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging.”

In 2020, the Government spent £184 million on Covid-related advertising, including on the message that if we went out, we could spread the virus and ‘People Will Die’. This is bullying, not bribing, taxpayers with their own money. Was the emetic ‘Don’t Kill Your Gran’ inspired by SPI-B’s recommendation that messaging needs to emphasise the duty to protect others?

With its calamitous forecasting record, if it were Paddy Power, SAGE would have gone bust long ago. Among members of SPI-B, three are from BIT, one is a communist and four declined to give their names. So much for transparency. Last month, Simon Ruda, a BIT co-founder, stated that fewer than one per cent of its staff supported Brexit. If behavioural science is meant to correct the biases that lead us into making poor decisions, surely diversity of opinion should be encouraged?

Spun off from the Cabinet Office in 2014, BIT is now a global consultancy with 250 staff. In December, the government announced it will sell its one-third stake to innovation agency Nesta, whose Chief Executive stated in the Financial Times that “tackling Covid has shown what, properly applied, behavioural insights can do.” Mask-wearing, apparently, shows compliance with social norms and is a wider signal for others to take precautions.

Project Fear 2.0 included the daily Terror at Tea-Time press conferences, with their update on the Covid death toll. Even today, the tally is a context-free zone. We are still told nothing about, for example, how many people have recovered from the virus and been discharged from hospital. Why not? We need some positive news, not more doom porn.

Who doesn’t know people who are still reluctant to leave their homes? After almost two years of relentless bombardment about disease and death, caution is understandable. Fearing contamination – especially during the Hands, Face, Space phase of messaging – householders disinfected their deliveries or left them outside their front doors for days.

Given we still have a state broadcaster and the millions shovelled their way, it is unsurprising that much of the media have become outposts of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. In the context of the Government’s Covid response, we heard too few voices of dissent and too much cheer-leading for the dystopia it was creating.

The messaging and manipulation is beginning to look counter-productive. Children have foregone their MMR jabs not least because parents heeded warnings about avoiding GP surgeries and hospitals. On Wednesday, a study by John Hopkins University found that lockdowns had little impact, perhaps reducing the death rate by 0.2 per cent.

Last July, Laura Dodsworth published A State of Fear – How the Government Weaponised Fear During the Covid-19 Pandemic. Endorsed by Lord Sumption, it was dismissed by The Times’ David Aaronovitch as ‘an outrageously dumb book selling conspiracy hooey’. Thankfully, some MPs are finally starting to do their job of holding the Executive to account and we might get to see whose call is correct.

Public policy often tries to change our behaviour. Being encouraged to eat five a day is, however, completely different from being coerced into ceding our freedoms, human rights and liberty. Ethics vanished.

As Prof Halpern noted, “Many experiments are run which depend on the subject not knowing they are part of the experiment.”

We, the lab rats, eh?

Liam Fox: The free market is not the problem in climate change, but it can be the solution

10 Nov

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for Defence, and is MP for North Somerset.

In a rational world, facts matter. Evidence matters. Clarity matters. So, let me be clear where my own starting point is in terms of the climate debate.

In his excellent book, Paleoclimate, Michael Bender points out that in the history of our planet there have been huge swings in our climate. We have had multiple periods where the earth was glaciated to the equator, lasting millions of years, and others when it was so warm dinosaurs lived on Antarctica.

He set out the four factors that have caused these climate modifications: changes in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, changes in the amount of sun’s radiation reflected directly back to space, changes in the position of the continents that guide winds and ocean currents, and changes in the brightness of the sun itself.

I think it is very difficult to come to any other conclusion than that global warming and climate change, with all their unpredictable consequences, are real and that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations are by far the most likely reason.

The question then becomes how we should best respond to this most vital challenge?

I believe that we need to look to our own experiences from the past to determine our direction and to look to our own technological capabilities to provide a roadmap for the way forward.

In the pandemic, it was not the socialist or totalitarian states that produced the vaccines, and recently the medicines, that offer the best way out of this global tragedy. Rather than being the enemy of government strategies, the Oxford/AstraZenecas, the Pfizers and the Johnson & Johnsons utilised their private sector experience, flexibility and financial independence to help governments achieve their public policy aims.

Our choice will be between the de-growth agenda of the left, constantly telling us what must be forbidden in our private and public lives or one of innovation, creativity and technological advance. Only the latter will allow the developing nations to share in the prosperity, health and freedom that we too often take for granted. De-growth of the richest economies will do nothing to help fund crucial development for some of the world’s poorest people.

The instincts of socialists will always be to tell us what we cannot do and the issue of climate change will be used ruthlessly to set a political agenda in their own image if we allow that to happen. It will be used as a war against capitalism by proxy.

Instead, we need to use the power of the free market to find ways of ensuring that progress continues, including for the world’s poorest, in a way that is consistent with the need to deal with what scientific evidence increasingly tells us is an existential threat.

One of the environmental issues that makes me most angry is the way in which we are polluting our oceans in the most disgraceful ways.

In the years from 2000 – 2010, human beings made more plastic than all the plastic created up to that point in history. Estimates suggest that there are now between 15 and 50 trillion pieces of plastic in what were once pristine waters.

The knee-jerk reaction is to ban the sale and use of plastics which, although potentially a crucial weapon in our armoury, can only ever be a partial solution.

What we need to do is to harness our scientific ingenuity, to ensure that we can develop environmentally friendly alternatives.

It can never be achieved simply by state dictat, but by the encouragement of the innovation and creativity that powers our technological progress and which can be supercharged by financial incentives in a free market.

Is there a role for government in helping to provide the encouragement, incentives and framework in such an approach? The answer has to be yes, but it must be a model where the state acts as the enabler for the private sector, not a substitute.

When it comes to the broader arguments around climate change, it is clear that we need to develop a decarbonisation agenda that is affordable, sustainable and which commands public support, at least in the Western democracies were such a thing actually matters.

There are tough policy questions that we must answer that go well beyond well -meaning aspirations and end dates for the process.

What is our actual starting point on the journey towards decarbonisation, what is our current energy pattern and how much change will be needed?

How realistic is our timescale to achieve net zero?

How much capital will the decarbonisation agenda require, where will it come from and when?

What will be the role of new technologies in this process?

How do we avoid creating the risk of energy poverty amongst our people?

What is the wider international geopolitical context of the debate?

How do we avoid becoming dependent on potentially hostile states for our energy supplies during our transition to this brave new world?

These questions, and more, need urgent and detailed answers.

Simply wishing to arrive at a particular destination is no substitute for a detailed roadmap of how to get there.

Those who advocate a “de-growth” alternative fundamentally fail to understand human nature.

It should come as no surprise that more organic foods are bought by those with higher incomes or that the political salience of environmental and climate issues diminishes in times of economic hardship or with higher levels of unemployment.

It is only natural, and commendable, to want to put food on the family’s table and provide basic necessities such as clothing and heating.

It is not only irritating, but politically naive at best, to hear an often Metropolitan middle-class telling those less wealthy than themselves what they ought to be giving up.

Our best way forward is to invest in proven technologies, encourage those in their infancy and continue to innovate to produce those capabilities that will, in the future, enable us to ensure that development, prosperity and sound environmental stewardship can safely coexist.

In the nuclear arena, the twin pressures of carbon mitigation and long-term rising global energy demand necessitate broad and significant deployments of nuclear energy worldwide.

The advances in SMR (Small Modular Reactor) technology should be a green light for governments, regulators and investors worldwide to rapidly expand the sector.

Emerging technologies which can dramatically cut emissions, even from the cleanest fossil fuels, should be given every help and encouragement. They will enable us to transition to a decarbonised world while minimising social or political dislocation. Many of these tech advances are being pioneered here in the UK.

Finally, the promising trends in areas such as hydrogen power need to forge ahead at full speed, alongside the supporting capabilities in transport and safe storage where, again, in the UK, research is already well advanced.

All these pathways to a secure decarbonised future will need to come from the incubator of the world’s most developed nations. They have the skills, the innovation and the financial capability to produce these results – and this is no accident.

The free market incentives, the lack of state interference and the innovative culture that all of these help nurture is the best hope that we have of reaching our climate change goals without reducing living standards in the developed world or holding back the fully justified hope of development in some of the world’s poorer nations.

Going backwards or slowing down our economic advance and technological prowess is not the answer to the challenge of climate change. In fact, it will be a huge impediment.

The leaders of the free, democratic and capitalist world must recommit themselves to the principles that produced the innovation and scientific advance that has been our hallmark – an agenda based on creativity empowered by the free market.

It is time to have the courage to ensure that these same values drive the progress of tomorrow – for all the people of the world. And for the world itself.

There are vaccine shortages worldwide. Is it really more important to inoculate children here than adults abroad?

7 Jun

In the last few days, the UK regulator has approved use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children who are aged 12-15. The MHRA said that after a “rigorous review”, it found that the benefits outweighed any risks. It has also been approved for the same age group in the US, Canada and the EU – with the Moderna jab approved in the US, and Germany planning to start vaccinating children over 12 from today.

One newspaper has reported that, in the UK, vaccines could be administered to children from as early as August as part of plans being drawn up in Whitehall. Currently ministers are waiting on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which will make the final decision on whether inoculations become routine for the aforementioned age group.

Even before the regulatory approval came through, the subject of whether to vaccinate children has been incredibly controversial. Twitter isn’t always the best metric for understanding public sentiment, but you only had to look at the reaction to Jeremy Hunt’s recent post – a video of himself asking whether it was time to vaccinate children – and Lisa Nandy’s similar call to see how many are opposed to the idea.

The main concern that people, parents or otherwise, have is that, in general, children’s risk from the vaccine could outweigh that of getting Coronavirus, which is extremely low. Although scientists did not find any major side effects in vaccine trials, these involved 2,000 children, whereas very rare side effects – by their nature – tend to be found when a vaccine gets rolled out to tens of thousands more people.

Worries about the risk ratio are not a “fringe” or anti-vax view, but shared among medical practitioners. For instance, Professor Russell Viner, former President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has said: “Having a license doesn’t mean the vaccine should be used for all teenagers… Decisions about wider use in teenagers need to carefully balance the benefits and risks and the ethical issues involved in vaccinating children. The early reports about myocarditis in young men need to be properly investigated and may not be related to the Pfizer vaccine, however they provide a warning that we should not rush into these decisions.”

Another reason we have seen some strong reactions may simply be from people who didn’t realise that vaccinating children was an option. Even Kate Bingham, the Government’s vaccine tsar, warned in October 2020: “People keep talking about ‘time to vaccinate the whole population’, but that is misguided… There’s going to be no vaccination of people under 18. It’s an adult-only vaccine, for people over 50, focusing on health workers and care home workers and the vulnerable”.  So it’s not surprising that many were not prepared for the idea.

There will be lots of reasons the Government is thinking about vaccines for children. For instance, although rare, some children have suffered from long Covid – there’s no doubt that high risk children need vaccinations – and there have additionally outbreaks among children in certain areas (Blackburn with Darwen).

The JCVI will also consider what’s best for wider society in its decision (for instance, whether vaccinating children will bring transmission rates to a more manageable level). On this note, it’s interesting that Israel stopped short of vaccinating its young, as it inoculated so many adults that it eliminated cases in children. Maybe in August we will face a similar situation.

Another big reason the Government will be thinking about vaccinating children is because of the educational disruption that Covid has caused. Throughout the pandemic, unions have been perhaps the most demanding group when it comes to calling for Covid measures – and are now calling for vaccinations for pupils “as matter of priority“. Saying that, they might now find themselves up against an even louder group: parents! As plenty don’t want their kids to have the jab.

One of the most important arguments to consider in this debate – which experts are increasingly pointing out – is that there are parts of the world suffering far more than the UK, the US or otherwise with their Covid rates. Is it moral that Germany is getting on with inoculating children when there are countries with high risk populations that aren’t vaccinated? It doesn’t seem right.

Dr Kate O’Brien, the World Health Organisation’s top vaccine expert, has warned that immunising children against Covid is not a high priority, and reminded politicians that there is insufficient vaccine supply for the whole world. “Immunisation of children in order to send them back to school is not the predominant requirement for them to go back to school safely,” were her words. “They can go back to school safely if what we’re doing is immunising those who are around them who are at risk.” Somehow, with the panic about variants and June 21, we seem to have forgotten that.

Iain Dale: People will die as a result of the EU’s Covid games. But don’t expect the media to criticise Saint Macron.

19 Mar

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Another day, another attack from the EU on Britain and/or AstraZeneca (AZ).

It’s becoming a very unfortunate pattern. Once you can forgive, twice you can put down to coincidence. Three times and you start to wonder if there’s an agenda. And so on.

This started many weeks ago, when it became clear that the UK had forged ahead in its vaccine rollout, unlike the EU, whose bureaucracy and incompetence led to it being two to three months behind.

As this reality dawned, it seemed the only way it could cover its back was to accuse the UK of vaccine nationalism. President Macron of France even went so far as to cast doubt on the safety of the AZ vaccine with absolutely no proof whatsoever. The German newspaper Handelsblatt followed suit.

We should remember that Macron is president of a country where vaccine scepticism is already rife. It was one of the most irresponsible things I have ever heard come out of a so-called statesman’s mouth. If Trump had said it, Europe’s media would have been up in arms. Not so much with the sainted Macron.

A few weeks later Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, erroneously, and totally without any foundation, claimed that Britain had imposed an export ban on vaccines or vaccine contents. No such ban had been imposed and the European Commission was forced to admit it.

Ursula von der Leyen then proceeded to threaten an export ban to the UK, which again, had to be withdrawn. She did though approve a decision by the Italian government to ban the export of 250,000 vaccine jabs from AZ to Australia, on the basis that they were needed in the EU. Yet all we hear is that there are hundreds of thousands of AZ vaccines sitting in fridges and there is no shortage whatsoever.

And then 17 European countries – not all of them EU members – decided to suspend AZ vaccines on the basis that there were reports of people suffering blood clots after having had the vaccine. Almost immediately we found out that there had been 28 cases per million after 17 million doses had been administered.

Strangely, however, there was no ban on the Pfizer vaccine, given that it has had 22 cases. I wonder why that would be…

While it’s always right to be cautious and to analyse the “yellow cards” which all vaccines experience, the effect of this suspension of rollout has yet again undermined public confidence in the AZ vaccine. So why have these countries done it, given they must have known the consequence?

The head of the Italian medicines regulator has been highly critical of the decision and says it was done for “political reasons”. Scandalous.

There is another explanation. Big pharma companies have incredibly powerful lobbying operations, both in Brussels and in national capitals. The AZ vaccine is sold at cost, whereas all the other companies’ vaccines are far more expensive and are produced with varying, but large, profit margins. It’s in their interests to trash the AZ vaccine. It costs between £1 and £2 per dose, compared to the £13-£20 for the Pfizer offering. Others are a bit cheaper but way more than AZ. Follow the money.

As I write, the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have both confirmed the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the damage is done. Even in this country there are reports of people with pre-booked appointments not showing up for their turn. It’s a stark thing to say, but the constant running down of the AZ vaccine by European leaders is having an effect here. People will die as a result.

And on Wednesday the hapless von der Leyen returned to the fray and went back on her promise of a few weeks ago and directly threatened the UK with an export ban. Again, scandalous. She appears not to understand Contract Law. Originally she accused AZ of going back on its contractual obligations. She raided their offices in Belgium. The truth was that the contract was watertight. If it hadn’t been, no doubt there would have been an immediate law suit emanating from the Berlaymont.

This sabre rattling is all about arse covering and skin saving. It’s a lame attempt to portray Britain as the bad cop. European people can see through this. They look at the successful rollout of the vaccine in Britain and compare it to the lamentable efforts of the EU, and they can see quite easily how it has happened.

The reaction of the British government to these outrageous threats from Brussels has been commendably muted. It’s more with sorrow rather than anger. But these are hostile acts, and it is a sign that we can expect more of the same. Britain totally holds the moral high ground here, and it will be interesting to see how this can be turned to our diplomatic advantage.

One thing is for sure: I have lost count of the number of people on social media who were devout Remainers, who now say they regret their Remain votes. I imagine there are plenty of people all over Europe who are now saying that the Brits knew what they were doing and their faith in the EU has been diminished as a result. Who knows what the long-term consequences of this will be for the EU.

– – – – – – – – –

Yesterday my book The Prime Ministers won the Parliamentary Book of the Year by a No Parliamentarian. I think anyone who has ever won an award can imagine how I felt when I heard the news. There’s no panel who chooses this ward in the usual Buggins Turn way, the awards are voted on by MPs and Peers themselves, which makes it even more special.

The book contains 55 essays on each of our 55 PMs, and it’s being announced today that my next book will be in a similar format and look at the 46 US Presidents. That will be followed up in 2023 by one on our Kings and Queens.

Ruwayda Mustafah: Britain’s global vaccination role – an economic and moral position

10 Mar

Ruwayda Mustafah is a British-Kurdish writer with an interest in political communications and governance.

The recent news that at least 22 million UK citizens have now received their first Coronavirus vaccination jab is, in the words of the Prime Minister, an “extraordinary feat”. As first country to approve the Pfizer vaccine, and as the seventh fastest vaccinators in the world, we should rightly take pride in the speed of our response and programme rollout.

For dozens of lower income and developing countries however, the situation looks considerably more alarming. Many of these countries are still months away from their very first jab. Across the world’s poorest counties, it is predicted that at least 90 per cent of people in 67 low-income countries won’t get vaccinated this year.

Developed countries meanwhile have purchased enough vaccines to vaccinate their populations nearly three times over. This is what Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, called the “me-first approach”’and means that wealthy nations have monopolised almost the entire vaccine supply.

Where does this leave Britain? In a post-Brexit period, when we are looking to increase our own independent standing in the world, we have a moral duty to ensure we are doing everything we can to support these developing nations with their vaccination programmes.

One of the simplest ways in which the UK can help economically disadvantaged counties is by donating excess stock. The UK is set to have a considerable surplus of stock, having ordered 367 million doses of vaccine from seven different developers. Other counties, such as Norway and India, have already committed to donating part of their regular stock to poorer nations – so the least we can do is ensure surplus stock is made available to those most in need.

Another way in which we can demonstrate this support is by further financing the distribution of the vaccine in developing countries. This week, Professor Sarah Gilbert, the co-creator of the Oxford vaccine, has called on those receiving the vaccine in the UK to contribute to the WHO Covid-19 relief fund.

It shouldn’t however be the responsibility of citizens, themselves going through challenging and anxious times, to be funding disadvantaged counties’ efforts to fight the pandemic; government should be looking to at least match every donation made my private citizens in the UK towards the WHO Covid-19 relief fund.

Third, we must be doing everything we can to help countries with their implementation of the vaccine programme. As we have seen in the UK, despite our advanced infrastructure, world-leading public health systems and available frontline workers, there are still fundamental challenges in vaccinating as fast and as efficiently as possible.

For the poorest countries, this magnitude of problems is only exacerbated by having a barely functioning healthcare system, crippling debt and limited resources. The challenge therefore becomes much bigger, and needs greater western support – including from the UK – to address.

Calling on the Government to do more to help disadvantaged countries isn’t to discredit or belittle our efforts to date. Britain has played a leading role in the Coronavirus COVAX initiative, contributing £584 million to the programme’s £5.7 billion goal of making access to the Covid-19 vaccines a more level playing field (making Britain the most generous funder).

Our scientists and academics have also led the way, from the development of the Oxford vaccine to response teams advising health services and governments worldwide. But we can be doing even more to demonstrate leadership and cooperation on the delivery of the vaccine worldwide.

Furthermore, the argument for the UK to be better helping these struggling nations is not just an ethical one, but an economic one too.

New research suggests that 49 per cent of the global economic costs for the Coronavirus pandemic will be shouldered by advanced economies, such as that of the UK. Even if the UK was to vaccinate its entire population, the disruptions to trade networks and international production resulting from poorer counties being unvaccinated will result in a huge financial knock-on effect for the UK.

Pandemics are indiscriminate and don’t pay attention to borders or nationality, and if poorer countries aren’t vaccinated, affluent counties such as the UK will be affected too. Helping developing counties that supply us with so many of our goods to get vaccinated will therefore be in as much our economic interest, and the wider world’s interest, as theirs.

Facilitating the purchase of vaccination for developing countries is not therefore just about charity, it’s an investment in their future and ours. If the UK wants to stream ahead as an exporting superpower globally, it must take into account the hardships developing countries are facing as a result of Coronavirus, and extend a helping hand to friendly allies.

Macron and others played politics with AstraZeneca. The consequences for many EU citizens are fatal.

24 Feb

In January this year, many will remember Emmanuel Macron telling reporters, in no uncertain terms, what he thought about the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

Today we think that it is quasi-ineffective for people over 65”, he said, hours before the European Medicines Agency recommended it for adults of all ages. “[T]he early results we have are not encouraging for 60 to 65-year-old people concerning AstraZeneca”, the French president warned, as well as criticising Britain’s strategy of delaying the second dose of the vaccine to get the first one out quickly – in another act of incredible diplomacy.

Days earlier a German newspaper incorrectly claimed the AstraZeneca jab is only eight per cent effective in the over-65s. While the figure was quickly dismissed, several countries haven’t exactly inspired confidence in AstraZeneca’s efficacy. Germany advised that it should not be given to people aged 65 or above, citing “insufficient data”, and France, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway have also recommended it only for younger people.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission Chief, even went so far as to accuse the UK of compromising on “safety and efficacy” safeguards in delivering its vaccines. And Clément Beaune, France’s Europe Minister, warned “the British are in an extremely difficult health situation. They are taking many risks in this vaccination campaign.” You don’t have to be a Brexiteer to get the idea: British vaccines = bad. Even John Bell, a medical professor at Oxford University, accused Macron trying to reduce demand for vaccines to cover up the EU’s huge issues with procurement, culminating in its dangerous attempt to control vaccine exports across the Irish border.

So one wonders what the mood is in Brussels now that research has revealed just what a success the much-attacked AstraZeneca vaccine has been. A study in Scotland, where 1.14 million people were vaccinated between December 8 and February 15, showed that both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines led to a “very substantial” drop in serious illness across all adult age groups.

Critically, researchers found that by the fourth week after receiving an initial dose of each vaccine, the risk of hospitalisation from Covid-19 reduced by up to 85 per cent (Pfizer) and 94 per cent (AstraZeneca), in a result that will please people who’ve had it – but raise serious questions about the language and policies of EU leaders.

Their actions have fuelled vaccine hesitancy. In Germany, for instance, people have failed to turn up to appointments for the AstraZeneca vaccine. As of Friday, only 150,000 out of 1.5 million doses of the vaccine had been used – leaving the country with less than six per cent of its population immunised (compared to 26 per cent for Britain).

There are also reports of hospital workers in France and Belgium demanding that they be given the Pfizer jab instead of AstraZeneca (one nurse in a Flemish hospital even told a publication she would go on strike if offered the latter). Politicians have failed to convey the bigger picture; that everyone is lucky to be offered one vaccine with high efficacy rates (50 per cent protection would have been a good outcome), let alone that several have been developed.

As Ryan Bourne and Jethro Elsden have already written for ConservativeHome, the EU’s difficulties in procuring vaccines is dangerous enough in itself – Bourne estimates the UK has saved around nine thousand lives by choosing its own vaccination programme, and Elsden says the country has gained approximately £100 billion from doing this.

The fact that some EU leaders have added to this chaos by planting doubts about AstraZeneca’s vaccine makes the situation even more alarming. The vulnerable are less protected, and – on a global scale – if we do not get transmission of the virus down, it can mutate and mean that the current vaccines do not work.

Some leaders realise the seriousness of the problem. Michael Müller, the mayor of Berlin, has warned that people could be sent to the back of the queue for vaccines if they refuse an AstraZeneca job. “I won’t allow tens of thousands of doses to lie around on our shelves while millions of people across the country are waiting to be immunised”, were his words, and Angela Merkel’s spokesman has pleaded with Germans to take the “safe and highly effective” jab.

It’s a start, but terrible that so much damage has already been done. Some might remember that in November 2020, MPs here debated whether social media companies should be doing more to remove anti-vaccine disinformation. Never could they have imagined it would be Macron spreading some of the most troublesome ideas.

Neil O’Brien: The virus and the lockdown. Let’s keep calm and carry on – for there’s reason to believe that a vaccine is coming soon.

2 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Sarah Thomas is a lunatic. And amazing. About a year ago, she became the first person to swim the Channel four times in a row without stopping. It took 54 hours.

Between booking her slot, and getting in the water, she survived cancer. Setting off, she was immediately stung in the face by a jellyfish. On her fourth crossing, strong tides pushed her off course, turning 83 miles of swimming into 134, forcing her to sprint-swim to break free from the current.

She’s inspiring. And swimming the channel isn’t a bad metaphor for our fight against coronavirus. Metaphorically, we’re somewhere in the middle, when you can’t see Britain, but can’t quite see France either.

The national restrictions announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday underlined that we will still be slogging through this for a while yet. Polls suggest the public strongly back his decision: given the alarming data, it is definitely the right one.

Yet everyone’s tired of the restrictions and not seeing loved ones and friends, and the good things we look forward to once this is over remain a way off.

As we go through this marathon ordeal, what can we learn from Sarah Thomas?

First, most top athletes are taught to visualise success.

Regarding Coronavirus, the finishing line is becoming more visible, with progress on vaccines looking good. The New York Times runs a Vaccine Checker which lets you follow progress.

Eleven different vaccines are in final-stage “Phase 3” clinical trials, with half a dozen or so now seeing limited use outside trials.

There were always reasons to be optimistic about a vaccine: when the whole world wants something really badly, it’s likely to get produced. Producing a vaccine for coronavirus isn’t like inventing the atom bomb or putting a man on the moon, which required oodles of new technologies. A Covid-19 vaccine is a sideways-step from existing technologies. Several categories of vaccines look like they will be ready to roll in the coming months:

  • The Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine is basically a weakened version of a common cold type virus, modified to carry a protein which Covid-19 also shows, so that your body can learn to seek and destroy it without exposure to the real thing. Trials found it produces a good immune response including among older people, and doesn’t have side effects. The UK, US and EU have signed for hundreds of millions of doses.
  • Other vaccines based on a similar approach in final stage tests include China’s CanSino vaccine, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and Johnson & Johnson in the US.
  • Another promising approach is based on the use of messenger RNA: a blueprint for making proteins. The Pfizer / Biontech vaccine works like this and may well be the first to go into non-trial use in the US. There was some speculation last week that we could start using it here in the UK before Christmas, which seems a bit soon, but it isn’t far off. Another similar vaccine from the Gamaleya Research Institute is also final stage trials.
  • Finally, there’s a bunch of traditional vaccines based on inactivated versions of Covid-19 (like the Hepatitis B vaccine, which has been around since the 1960s). China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac both offer vaccines like this – the Sinovac one is already being used outside clinical trials and you can buy it in some cities for $60. The Indian Council of Medical Research is also in final stage trials of an equivalent.

So the shore’s not so far away.

The other lesson from Sarah Thomas is about listening to the right people. She says she nearly quit halfway, but her team egged her on.

Contrast that with the British commentariat, large parts of which are dishing out terrible advice. If they’d been in Sarah Thomas’s support boat they’d have been telling her to give up, harping on about how cold it was. They’ve been hopeless throughout.

First, they dismissed the problem. Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Daily Mail on March 2nd/

“My default position on all these health scares is weary scepticism. We’ve been here before. Sars, Mers, Ebola, Bird Flu, Swine Flu… All passed in Britain, at least without the catastrophic death toll the so-called ‘experts’ confidently predicted”.

Wrong.

Then they declared the problem over. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson wrote in May that that, by June: “a scientist friend assures me the coronavirus will have petered out.” Sunetra Gupta, one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, (and who the media fawns over), predicted in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country”, which she said was “due to the build-up of immunity”.

Wrong.

The commentariat want to shout down wiser voices. In September, Sir Patrick Vallance faced a torrent of abuse for saying that there might be 200 deaths a day from Covid-19 by mid November. “Project fear,” thundered one Telegraph columnist. Piers Morgan blasted the Government’s “scaremongering.”

Wrong.

In fact we hit that grim milestone sooner, in late October, and hit 326 by the last day of October. We need to start listening to the right coaches – not hopeless people who get it wrong time and again, but face zero accountability.

Finally, top athletes learn from the best. In terms of Coronavirus, the best performers are Japan, Korea and New Zealand. France has had 19,800 cases per million people. The UK 14,800. Japan has had just 795, and Korea just 512 and New Zealand 325.

New Zealand is rural, but Japan and Korea are heavily urban. How did they do it?

Partly it’s about near-universal mask use. As the Lancet notes: “In Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, the habit of mask wearing by people with respiratory conditions was already widespread before the pandemic”. Part of it is that all these countries also have tough virus border controls.

There are other factors. Japan locked down Tokyo at a very early stage. South Korea’s super-duper test and trace system uses records of credit card transactions, mobile phone and global positioning system data, to fill in gaps in what coronavirus patients can remember in interviews.

The most important lesson from Asia is that success breeds success. A low rate of cases makes it easier for test and trace staff to isolate and shut down chains of infection, and contain local outbreaks. Too many cases and such approaches are overwhelmed.

To use an analogy, it took us a long time to work out how to conquer inflation. The key discovery was that the only way to have stable inflation is to have very low inflation.

The same’s true of coronavirus. Either you are beating coronavirus, or it is beating you. It doesn’t want to go in a straight line or rise gently, but to streak exponentially upward. Korea, Japan and New Zealand have got it pinned to the floor, so can get on with their lives. Instead of surrendering, as let-it-rippers in the commentariat advocate, they’ve decided to win.

Unlike Sarah Thomas we don’t have to swim for 54 hours. But we’re all enduring hardships. To get to the other side of this we need to keep thinking straight. It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that there’s some easy way out. There isn’t.

When she was far out to sea, her team called to her: “Just keep swimming.” At first, I thought that sounded really dumb. But when you are out in the middle of the Channel, it’s not such bad advice.